Selecting Sermon Form: The Preacher’s Strategy – Part 1

Over the next days I will re-assert a basic commitment of expository preaching on this site – there is great flexibility on form.  You can preach a text deductively or inductively, or a combination, or using some variation on these basic shapes.  You can choose three points, or two, or one, or four.  You can go verse-by-verse, chunk-by-chunk, logical thought by thought.  You can preach in first-person, second-voice, etc.  You can follow the Stanley 5-Step (me-we-God-you-we), the “Lowry Loop,” or the “Clowney Construct,” or Chappell’s variation, or Keller’s.  Whatever.  You have freedom to choose your form.  So why do we choose the form we choose?  It’s simple really.  It’s about strategy.  As Robinson puts it, the sermon idea is the arrow, your sermon purpose is the target, and your sermon form is how you think you can best deliver that arrow to its intended target.

Since there are numerous possible variations on sermon form, which should you choose?  It’s simple really.  Whatever will work best.  If you have a goal, then you will choose your strategy in order to achieve your purpose.  I see at least three implications here:

1. Resolute commitment to a good strategy may be foolhardy. Seems obvious, but circumstances change.  It’s true in war.  It’s true in sport.  It’s true in preaching.  If you preach in first person (in character) and you get great feedback, don’t automatically commit to always preaching in first person.  It will become old and lose some of its effectiveness.  Each sermon is an opportunity to choose your strategy according to the factors uniquely present on that occasion.

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Review: The Homiletical Plot, by Eugene Lowry

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Eugene Lowry’s work sits under the broad umbrella of the New Homiletic. His work overlaps considerably with Fred Craddock. Other New Homiletic writers have been criticized for writing well, but failing to provide a clear model of what they are suggesting. This charge cannot be leveled at Lowry. The Homiletic Plot was first released in 1980, then re-released twenty-one years later. The text of the book remains unchanged, with the only significant change being an additional afterword. This addition is very helpful, clarifying elements of the book and providing an overview of the New Homiletic field.

The Homiletical Plot provides a plotline for narrative sermons which suggests the preacher might typically move through five discernible stages in a narrative sermon. Don’t confuse narrative preaching with preaching on narrative texts. The former is an organic approach to preaching that develops sermons using temporal sequencing to develop a sermonic experience, the latter could take any form, but uses a biblical story as its text. In fact, a biblical narrative contains features of plot already, so the resulting sermon might vary from the “Lowry Loop” more than non-narrative texts. However, it is important to note that Lowry is not suggesting the forcing of any text into his 5-stage loop.

Whether or not you have read much from New Homiletic writers, Lowry is well worth reading. It is relatively short (131pp) yet has many strengths. He presents a good case for thinking of sermons as horizontal rather than vertical, an event in time rather than space, progressing rather than static, organically developed rather than constructed. The opening stage of upsetting the equilibrium should be required reading for every preacher. The notion of complications and plumbing the depths of the real issues in life is very thought provoking, whether or not you agree with Lowry’s theology (which he does not push on the reader). The notion of a sudden shift is surely a powerful concept and I appreciated the positive approach to concluding the sermon.

There are three weaknesses worth noting. Even with all the explanation and helpful diagrams, the reader is still left wondering what this actually looks like in a sermon. The danger of example sermons in an appendix is that they will turn off some readers and narrow the potential readership. However, the problem of no sample sermon is that the reader is left pondering exactly how Lowry might “plumb the depths” or perform the sudden shift.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the book for those of us committed to expository preaching relates to explaining the biblical text. Lowry states that he would typically spend more time on stage 2 (analyzing the discrepancy) than the other stages put together. Does this pursuit of deeper issues in the listener leave enough time to actually explain the text itself?

The final concern relates to the “Gospel” that permeates the model. Lowry continually refers to “experiencing the gospel” (stage 4), but which gospel? At times it feels like nothing more than the good news that God has turned things upside down in Jesus. This book will appeal to a broad spectrum of Christendom, and deliberately so, but some of us may feel the need to translate some of its teaching into our paradigm.

On one hand the book is highly refreshing and challenging – it certainly contains much for us to learn. On the other hand it highlights the dividing line between New Homiletic and those of us who would hold back from being counted in that camp. If it is possible to reduce the notion of a sermon to its minimum required features, then perhaps two broad camps can become more clear. The expository preaching camp might be satisfied with Sunukjian’s trio of bare essentials: A Bible text explained + the Big Idea + Relevance = a sermon. The reader of Lowry is left with a different trio: A “Gospel” image derived a Bible text + Plot + Relevance = a sermon.

This book would benefit all of us as preachers. Some aspects of it may not fully satisfy all of us. But it gives us all plenty to think about!